Lifestyle

No time to be sick | Gustafson

It is a well-documented fact that American workers put in longer hours and take less time off than their counterparts in almost any other country in the developed world.

Unlike in Europe, for example, where four to six weeks paid vacation time is mandatory, there are no comparable laws in the United States. But in addition to the lack of recreation, most Americans don't stay home even when they are sick.

According to surveys by Careerbuilder.com, about three in four people come to work while nursing a cold, the flu and something worse. Other statistics indicate the numbers are even higher.

When asked, most of those who decide to toughen it out say they don't want to fall behind in their workload or be thought of as slackers. Most are also aware that the germs they spread around while sneezing and coughing may infect their coworkers – but still they insist on staying on the job.

It doesn't help that taking a day off now and then is unaffordable for many Americans. Again, unlike in most European countries, there are no laws here that mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave.

Employers, of course, are keenly aware that workers who show up ill can do more harm than good, not only because the viruses they carry are contagious, but also because they are likely less focused and productive than normally. In other words, it affects businesses' bottom line, probably more so than if people stayed at home. Luckily, in this day and age, many of us can do at least some of their work remotely and don't have to be physically present in their workplaces.

Ways to prepare, cope

Either way, as this year's cold and flu season approaches, it may be a good idea to make some plans for how to cope with the inevitable before it strikes.

Your first step should be getting a flu shot. It may not protect you against every strand that's out there, but it increases your chances to escape some.

Second, you are well advised to wash your hands every time you leave common areas like conference rooms or cafeterias, or touch items like door handles, staircase railings or elevator buttons. Thorough washing and sanitizing of hands after bathroom visits should go without saying.

Unfortunately, you won't be able to eliminate all germ threats and can only minimize the risk of getting infected so much. Still, it makes sense to take as many precautions as you can think of. However, you don't want to become paralyzed with fear and develop paranoid behavior (Melvin Udall, the obsessive-compulsive character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie "As Good As It Gets" comes to mind).

Your best weapon, besides vaccination, is to strengthen your immune system as much as possible. Especially in the winter months, it is important to eat healthily and get lots of vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Go outdoors and exercise, even if the weather is less than inviting. An enclosed gym may provide many more health hazards than cold but fresh air. Make sure you get enough sleep, since tiredness and exhaustion make you more vulnerable to infections. Manage your stress as well as you can.

Should you still fall ill despite of your best efforts, see what can be negotiated in terms of staying at home and, if necessary, doing some work over the phone and via email. Your boss and colleagues should thank you for your wise decision.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.

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